Saturday, October 4, 2014

The O Canada Blogathon - Of Hacks and Hoseheads

This blog is sponsored  by The O Canada  Blogathon, running through Saturday, October Fourth, through October Ninth, 2014
hosted by
Ruth from Silver Screenings and Kristina from Speakeasy, hosted by Kristina Dijan and R.A. Kerr!

Dori's pick - Two O’Clock Courage (1945):  I’m Just Wild About “Harry!”

Anthony Mann is one of film’s most compelling and versatile directors/ producers, covering genres ranging from Westerns, like The Tall Target (1951), starring Dick Powell; and Robert Cummings in The Black Book, a.k.a Reign of Terror (1949) a film noir thriller set during  the French Revolution, among others. The multifaceted Mann could do it all, including helming rough and ready urban noirs such as T-Men (1947), Side Street (1950), and Raw Deal (1948), as well as costume epics like the aforementioned The Black Book.  Mann especially excelled with his noir-style collaborations with James Stewart, including Winchester '73 (1950), Stewart’s neo-noir Westerns, including The Far Country (1955), Bend of the River (1952), including The Naked Spur (1953); Bend of the River (1952); The Far Country (1955); and The Man From Laramie (1955). 

Two O’Clock Courage turned out to be Anthony Mann’s first directorial assignment, a good solid “B” picture” for RKO Radio Pictures!  (Say it with me  a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show: A: “An RKO Radio Picture.  What the heck is a Radio Picture?”).  Since then, the film has had a strong following and acclaim, with many of Mann’s signature tropes on display. Two O’Clock Courage was produced at RKO Radio Pictures!  Mann’s film may have had a relatively short running-time of a fleet-footed 70 minutes, but director Mann shines in his directorial debut.  The film weaves suspense and playfully cheeky humor, while blending film noir suspense with wry wit.  Fun Fact:  The script by Robert E. Kent is full of surprises, including co-writer Robert E. Kent’s original treatment, based on the work of humorist and children’s-book author Gelett Burgess, who I loved as a kid!  Who knew Burgess had film noir in his soul as well?  Now there’s a gent with range! 

You can't get blood from a stone, but you can from
Tom Conway's head! (Big owie!)
The cast blends memorable stars and entertaining character actors, including Richard Lane (Wonder Man; the Boston Blackie movie series with Lane as Inspector Farraday. Watch for another up-and coming young star, billed as “Bettejane Greer”; she soon rose to stardom as noir temptress Jane Greer, who became a film star in Out of the Past and The Big Steal, as well as the James Cagney biopic Man Of A Thousand Faces (1957)! Our star is Tom Conway from The Falcon film series, as well as Cat People; I Walked With A Zombie (1943;) The Seventh Victim (1943) from Val Lewton)!  Fun Fact: Conway was also married to Queenie Leonard from And Then There Were None (1945); The Narrow Margin; 1001 Dalmatians (the original Disney animated film!

Beaned, slugged, crowned; it all means the same - Amnesia!
The ever-suave Tom Conway stars as a mystery man — a man so mysterious, even he doesn’t know who he is!  Where’s The Falcon when you need him?!  But that opening scene is swell, starting with a tracking shot of Conway as he staggers up to a street sign, blood trickling slowly from under his hat, is a stylish grabber of an opening that keeps you hooked!  This poor dazed guy is lucky our heroine, Patty Mitchell, taxi cab driver by day, would-be stage actress by night, was paying attention when our man-in-distress almost got run over!  But when it becomes clear that our guy is in a bad way, kind-hearted Patty helps him to find out who he is as we drive into the night in Patty’s cab, “Harry”! (Yes, that’s what Patty calls her taxicab,“Harry!)

Ann Rutherford - they don't make cabbies like her no more!
Is our man in trouble, or a troublemaker? Can our charming, spunky heroine Patty Mitchell (Ann Rutherford),a cabbie  and would-be actress, lend him a hand?  Fate steps in just in time to for Patty to save our dazed stranger and would-be stage star, and they’re off to see who our man is, and who wanted him clobbered.  The only clue is a script titled "Two’Clock Courage" (Yay, we have title!), and the hot stage star Barbara Borden (Jean Brooks from Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim, as well as several Falcon films; Brooks looks lovely as a blonde, too).  In Robert to Osborne’s intro to Two’O Clock Courage, he playfully describes co-star Ann Rutherford as: “the prettiest cab driver you’ve ever seen!”

Even when she was starlet
"Bettejane Greer", Jane Greer
was smokin'!
Ms. Rutherford had long been an endearing young MGM ingénue as Mickey Rooney’s sweetie, Polly Benedict at MGM, as well as Red Skelton’s fiancée in the comedy-thriller Whistling in the Dark and its comedy-mystery sequels, not to mention a modest little flick called Gone With The Wind, where our gal Ann played her sister Carreen at Selznick Studios, plus her MGM days as Andy Hardy’s sweetie, Polly Benedict in the “Andy Hardy” movies.  And don’t forget Ann as the dreary yet hilarious fiancée of Danny Kaye in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty from Samuel Goldwyn!

Fun Fact:  Ann Rutherford had thought she she’d been a U.S. citizen all her life, until her plans to visit Europe in the 1950s showed her otherwise: our Ann was a Canadian!  Happily, she was able to get citizenship papers, and Ann  became a citizen of the U.S, fair and square!

Back to Patty and her new amnesiac friend, it’s not all playtime for our no-name hero, by any means!  On closer inspection, it turns out the natty gent has a nasty gash on his head, and he can’t remember who he is, despite his sharp clothes.  Even worse, Patty realizes this dashing fellow is injured, all dazed with blood dripping (albeit tastefully by 1945 suspense movie standards), without a clue as to where and who he’s from and who he is.  Diagnosis from Doctor Dorian: Protagonist on a dark Los Angeles street, almost getting run over by our heroine’s taxi!  Patty Mitchell ( poor guy almost gets run over by a cab driver, just missing a hit-and-run from our dazed hero)!

This hat band is brimming over with clues!
Luckily for our traumatized fella, he finally catches a break with the help of Patty Mitchell (Rutherford from Gone With The Wind; The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; the comedy-mystery Whistling in the Dark and its three sequels, also in Whistling in the Dark and co-starring Rutherford and Red Skelton) feel sorry for our beleaguered hero.  Patty and her trusty hack, Harry – yes, that’s the name of Patty’s cab (Hey, I have a car named “Moonpearl’, so why I shouldn’t our gal Patty have a car called “Harry”?  But I digress!)  Patty realizes this dashing fellow is injured, all dazed with blood dripping (albeit tastfully by 1945 suspense movie standards), without a clue as to where who from and who he is.  Diagnosis from Doctor Dorian: Amnesia, the scourge of every film noir victim, the poor devils!  Our man Patty and Patty go all through the night with wit and tenderness between the zanier parts of our caper.

How we had to look things up before Google.
Fun Fact:
  In addition to being a busy film star at MGM and Samuel Goldwyn (the latter being Goldwyn’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), Ann Rutherford was also married for many years to David May, the head honcho of the May Department store for the rest of their lives, I’m told, bless them!

Two O’Clock Courage was a remake from 1936, starring Walter Abel, longtime veteran of movies and Broadway. In fact, Abel played the amnesiac hero in the 1936 suspense drama Two in the Dark, which was remade in 1945 with Tom Conway and Ann Rutherford as Two O’Clock Courage, hence our tale!!
Fun Fact:  Tom Conway has a brother:  Oscar-winning Best Supporting actor George Sanders, Suave Fall of Fame Winner!  He was also the Oscar-winning Best Supporting Actor in All About Eve!

Either "Dave Renwick is a clothes horse,
or he's got a double life!
Ann Rutherford need her papers, - our hero made
sure Patty got hers!
Along the way of this playful mystery, our man at least he east has a name, even though it’s a nickname.   Our amnesiac hero just might be a killer, yet he’s equally sure he’s not a killer, goshdarnit!  The ever-perky Ann Rutherford plays the young actress/cabbie who takes pity on poor helpless Conway and helps him find both his true identity and the real murderer, with both warmth and zany comedy, including a nosy landlady, complicating this dizzy case with nosy reporters (Richard Lane of Wonder Man) and zany comedy.  During their search for answers, our man and Patty run into and afoul of L.A.’s Finest as the newspapers start asking for answers, too; it’s always something!  

Sometimes the broad comic relief is jarring compared to the overall taut film noir mood, but the pace is fast, and Conway and Rutherford have a charming rapport.  Jean Brooks and Tom Conway especially moved me in their dramatic roles.  Conway in particular had a sad, haunted look in his eyes that touched our hearts.

Service with a slam!

Vinnie's pick - Strange Brew (1983) - "To Be or Not to be, eh?"

The genesis of Great White North, possibly the most well known recurring skit from SCTV, is as eminently Canadian as the sketch.  The show needed two minutes of "local" material to satisfy the stringent rules for Canadian Content.  Dave Thomas sarcastically suggested that he and Rick Moranis dress up in flannel and parkas and ramble for two minutes in easy chairs in front of a map of Canada.  The producers said that'd be fine, and Canada's favorite sons were born.

After TV fame and a hit record album (featuring a hit single with lead vocals by Geddy Lee from Rush), the world of film was the obvious next step. With a script by Moranis and Thomas with help from Steve De Jarnatt (the devious maniac who brought us Miracle Mile and Cherry 2000), the McKenzies stepped into an expanded cartoony world in a tale that was blatantly ripped off from Hamlet.

We first see the brothers as they introduce their science fiction magnum opus, The Mutants of 2051 A.D.  When the film breaks and the audience riots, Bob gives their father's beer money to a distraught father whose kids saved up their allowance to attend the premiere.  This requires a clever plan to get their dad some beer, but as they are not clever men, they stuff a mouse in a beer bottle and attempt to complain for free beer.  They're sent to the Elsinore (!) brewery, where most of the plot is located.

We meet in rapid succession Pam Elsinore (Lynne Griffin) who is set to inherit the company after the passing of her father, Claude Elsinore (Paul Dooley), her uncle and now step father, who married her mother just a tad too soon after the passing of her father (Like I said, Hamlet) and Brewmeister Smith (Max Von Sydow) a man with plans for world domination through a plan that includes drugged beer, organ music, lunatics, and hockey.

With the exception of Thomas and Moranis, and magnificent character actor Paul Dooley, the cast of the film is largely made up of actors who are World Famous In Canada.  Lynne Griffin has had a solid career in Canadian productions, as has Angud MacInnes who played ex-hockey star Jean laRose.  Smith's assistant Brian McConnachie, in addition for a steady acting career and a writer for both SCTY and Saturday Night Live, is best known for being a writer for the National Lampoon, which was a vicious and magnificent humor magazine back in the day, as opposed to being nothing more than a brand name you can license and slap on your product like Black and Decker.

"I could crush your a nut.
But I won't. Because I need you."
Shakespeare couldn't have written a better line.
But the star of the film is undoubtedly Max Von Sydow.  He is that rarest of actors who can look at a script, figure out exactly how much fun he can have with a role, and deliver a performance that both shines and works perfectly in the film. This is a man who started working with Bergman in great works like The Seventh Seal, played in a TV movie in The Diary of Anne Frank, and yes, I was getting to it, was Ming the Merciless in the nigh-legendary version of Flash Gordon.  He's currently filming a part for the next Star Wars film.  If there was a just and righteous God in heaven, he would again be playing Ming.

The film takes place in a mad cartoon-logic world where people can stay underwater for almost an hour by breathing the air trapped in empty beer bottles, ghosts communicate via video games, a man can drink an entire vat of beer, and dogs can fly if sufficiently bribed with the promised of beer and bratwurst.

It's a mad film that never fails to bring a smile to my face, and it was a delight popping it into the DVD player to enjoy again.  I expect the same will be true for you.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Our Fourth Anniversary - I WANT MY CAKE!

It was four years ago today(-ish) on August 22, 2010 -  that I began my blog post, Tales of the Easily Distracted, often with my witty and delightful hubby Vinnie Bartilucci as Team Bartilucci!  We're still enjoying blogging about our favorite movies every couple of weeks, mostly films with suspense and tongue-in-cheek wry comedy.  Most of all, we have been happy to get to know new fellow movie lovers as well as enjoying our longtime friends' awesome blogs  I'm also getting back in the saddle to polishing my novel The Paranoia Club; but hey, one thing at a time!  What the heck, wish me luck anyway, and Vinnie and I hope you'll all enjoy all the swell upcoming movie fun here and with other swell blogger pals!  Now then, let's cut the cake, and watch our favorite movies, old and new, for many more movie delights!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Ten Little Indians (1965) - Six (-ty) Five, Four, Three...

There is Nothing Like a Dame!  We mean Dame Agatha Christie, of course!  Here in our latest series of blog posts saluting the talented and prolific films based on the novels of  Mrs. Christie, this time we’re watching one of our favorites, Ten Little Indians, the 1965 version (1966 in some posts). Our favorite brother act, The Popkin Brothers,  (Impact; D.O.A.) again produced the film, along with co-producer Harry Alan Towers (who deserves an article or even a book, but that, too, is another story). We’ve watched and enjoyed the 1945 version, And Then There Were None, but this time, Mrs. Christie’s chilling tale gets even more exciting, thanks to screenwriters Peter Yeldham and Towers himself, under the nom de plume “Peter Welbeck”; talk about a man of many faces!

George Pollock, who directed the delightful Miss Marple films starring Margaret Rutherford, blends suspense, action, humor and sexy romance with this swell cast, produced by Harry Alan Towers, who also had the rights to Ten Little Indians:

  • Leo Genn (Oscar-nominee for Quo Vadis; The Snake Pit
  • Daliah Lavi (Casino Royale; The Silencers)
  • Dennis Price (Kind Hearts and Coronets; I’m All Right, Jack 
  • Fabian (The Longest Day; North to Alaska 
  • Shirley Eaton (Goldfinger; The Girl Hunters 
  • Wilfrid Hyde-White (The Third Man; My Fair Lady)
  • Hugh O’Brian  (The Shootist; TV’s Wyatt Earp)
  • Stanley Holloway (The Lavender Hill Mob)
  • Marriane Hoppe (The Wrong Move; Romance in a Minor Key)
    *Mario Adorf (The Tin Drum; The Bird with the Crystal Plumage)
Similarities between the two film versions
abound, like this "keyhole" shot!
This version has it all:  violence, fisticuffs, hot hunks, and beautiful babes; you’ve got Team Bartilucci’s attention, all right!  This time, the beleaguered house party guests with targets on their backs are jet-setters in the Swiss Alps (played by Ireland; give our regards to Barry Fitzgerald!).  Each guest was lured by invitations, ranging from old friends (O’Brian), movie stars networking, like film star Ilona Bergen (Lavi) and such, invitations supposedly sent from old friends, or promises of hobnobbing  with the promise of more movie and/or TV/film roles roles, like film star Ilona Bergen here to hobnob (Lavi); popular but obnoxious rock singer  Mike Raven (Fabian);  and other devilish ruses to keep our party guests around in hope for more roles and such.  It’s the ultimate house-party gone lethally wrong!  Malcolm Lockyer’s gorgeously brassy musical score heats things up, which will come in handy when the lovely Shirley Eaton and the ruggedly handsome Hugh O’Brian have a super-hot love scene!  (I love that this scene is truly sexy and genuinely loving!)

With all the Currier & Ives-style winter wonderland atmosphere, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas — except that nobody knows each other, not even hired secretary Ann Clyde (Eaton).  Leave it to a movie star to break the ice, namely renowned actress Ilona Bergen (Lavi):
“How utterly marvelous!  You all came to a house party without knowing your host!”
Hugh: “Well, what about you, Miss Bergen?”

Ilona: “Darling, it happens to me all the time!” (Oh, those jaded jet-setters!

Our absent host U.N. Owen takes his sweet time showing up; what would Miss Manners say?  Luckily,  Judge Cannon (Hyde-White) has a toast for the occasion:  “To absent friends, the ten little Indians, and of course, our host.”   Keep an eye on your guests, you guys and gals; they might not stay very long, and not just because they’re jet-setters!  Soon a chilling, unknown voice breaks the ice with a series of accusations about the guests and the murders in their pasts.  The unknown "U.N. Owen (gotta hand it to the fiend, he (or she?) sure has a great sense of gallows humor!
"We've gotta have a romance, by George!"

Fun Fact:  The mysterious U.N. Owen’s sinister voice was played by the one and only Christopher Lee!

Our stranded guests finally let their fair down and admit their crimes:  General Mandrake sent five men to their deaths to in what turned out to be a tragic blunder, but was decorated anyway; the Grohmanns were accused of a mercy killing by their elderly charges.  Ilona had been a British Army Officer’s wife, bored but sticking with him until she finally got a chance to get a screen test,  then blowing that Popcicle stand and propelling herself to stardom—and when she dumped her sad hubby, he killed himself in despair, the poor guy.  She does seem to have some remorse, though my cynical side has me thinking she was more sorry for herself than anything else.  Mandrake knew all about her because Ilona’s husband had been Mandrake’s superior!  News travels fast in a snowbound Château!   Judge Cannon  had convicted a truly evil man, one Edward Seton, including other wicked things he’d done to save time; there’s multitasking for you!  And then there was Dr. Armstrong, living (but not for long) while he was literally drinking and driving while drunk, resulting in a killing a young couple. And the body count begins...

Hugh and Grohmann get ready to RUMBLE!
Ah, but Owen is far from infallible, at least when it comes to our budding lovers Hugh and Ann!   You see, Ann’s disturbed sister had killed her fiancée, and has lived in a mental home ever since.  Hugh had come to the Château because his friend, one Charles Moreley (note the initials “C.S”), had been had killed himself after in remorse after being responsible for a young woman’s botched abortion.  Oy!  How will Hugh and Ann get out of this fix?

I especially got a kick out of the Whodunit Break to give us viewers one minute to see who the killer is: “The Whodunit Break: “…A First in Motion Pictures!   Just before the gripping climax of the film, you’ll be given sixty seconds to decide to guess the who the murderer is…WE DARE YOU TO GUESS!”

Personally, I’d like to think the great William Castle is watching this in Heaven and grinning from ear to ear!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

And Then There Were None (1945) Ten...Nine...Eight...

Produced by brothers Leo C. Popkin and Harry H. Popkin, The Popkin Brothers  (Impact; D.O.A.; The Well) produced the film adaptation of Dame Agatha Christie’s 1945 film version of her thriller And Then There Were None, with great success.   And Then There Were None was produced by 20th Century-Fox and directed by the great Rene Clair, and based on Agatha Christie’s best-selling suspense novel, blending chilling suspense and wry humor.  However, Mrs. Christie’s original British version of the novel was originally titled Ten Little Niggers, which didn’t go over well with us Yanks!

Just as well, as screenwriter Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach; Scarlet Street) did a swell job of of adapting Mrs. Christie’s worldwide smash, adding more wickedly witty bits of wry dark humor!

Thank goodness we’re about to dock!
I've still got the willies from that ordeal with the U-Boat
and Connie Porter!
 As the film begins, the all-star cast slowly thaws the ice as the characters arrive in a boat, most of them being English.

The characters don't talk much, at least at first; they just smile and nod politely, no small feat when many of them are trying not to toss their cookies after that boat ride!  The crashing waves over the opening credits work perfectly; I was tempted to get my snorkel! Let’s meet our travelers, shall we?

  • Barry Fitzgerald  from Mark Hellinger’s The Naked City; The Quiet Man) as Judge Quincannon.
  • Walter Huston (Oscar-winner for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; Dodsworth; The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, as Dr. Edward G. Armstrong). (Mind you, this was before his son John Huston became a writer and director!)
  • Mischa Auer (You Can’t Take it With You; My Man Godfrey) as Prince Nikki Starloff.
  • June Duprez (The Thief of Bagdad; None But the Lonely Heart) as Vera Claythorne.
  • Louis Hayward (Ladies in Retirement; The Man in the Iron Mask)  as Phillip Lombard.
  • Roland Young   (Topper; The Philadelphia Story) as Detective Blore.
  • Judith Anderson from Laura; Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, as Emily Brent.
  • Sir C.Aubrey Smith  (Tarzan the Ape Man; Rebecca) as General Mandrake.
And of course, the guests have to eat, don’t they?  That’s where the servants, Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, come in:  Mr. Rogers is played by Richard Haydn from Ball of Fire; The Sound of Music; Disney’s Alice in Wonderland.  Mrs. Rogers is played by  Queenie Leonard (from the original animated Disney version of 101 Dalmations, as well as  the film noir The Narrow Margin; Queenie sure had range!  Of course, we also fell in love with Haydn’s comedic voice for various Looney Tunes, especially Team Bartilucci’s favorite, Super-Rabbit (1943)!     

Mischa Auer's Prince Nikki chokes to death on
a small piece of scenery. 
Nikki’s macabre ditty seems about down to the final verse of the “last little Indian" as per the 10 Little Indian rhyme-- but in fact, it’s only the beginning when a male voice accuses them all of various killings!  The deaths involve elderly General Mandrake, who was accused of murdering his rival for the woman he loved, and now seems to have Alzheimer's; Emily Brent’s teenage nephew was put in jail because his heartless Auntie Emily thought he had it coming, resulting in the desperate young man hanging  himself in prison; Nikki’s hit-and-run killed a young couple;  Dr. Armstrong is accused of drunkenness that killed one Mary Cleves; Judge Quincannon is accused of being a “hanging judge” for his own selfish motives; Blore had been hired to watch the guests, though he's not exactly James Bond; Vera is accused of killing her own sister’s fiancee -- jeepers, now that’s sibling rivalry!  What’s more, how can we be sure at least some of the accused might be getting a raw deal?  Curiouser and curiouser!

A dune to a kill!
Will there be a body count in the guests’ futures, if not lawsuits?  Where’s when you really need it? Rogers does what he can as the weekend slowly unravels in terror, what with the guests slowly but surely coming unglued, especially with the body count climbing as each guest is murdered by each new macabre killing, including poor Mrs. Rogers becoming one of the early casualties, supposedly from heart failure. The body count climbs as General Mandrake pushes up daisies; an accidental overdose of his medicine, or something more sinister?  Time to face facts:  the killer is one of the guests!

Janet! Dr. Scott! Janet! Brad! Rocky!
Emily Brent is the most cold-hearted, if you ask me, not giving a rat’s rectum about her young nephew killing himself; all she cares about is where her next jar of marmalade is coming from!   I think it’s safe to say this inn won’t be giving out any five-star ratings anytime soon from, even if the guests do even live that long!  Suspense blends with deft wit.  I especially enjoyed Richard Haydn and his delightful daffy delivery.  Even when the body count rises, there’s plenty of comedy along with the dread and suspense.

Who will survive?  Watch And Then There Were None  on July 21 -- and the 1965 version, too, coming ever so soon!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

One, Two, Three (1961) - "Setzen machen!"

This blog post is hosted by the Billy Wilder Blogathon, hosted by the talented IrishJayhawk66 of Outspoken & Freckled and
Aurora of
@CitizenScreen of Once Upon a Screen.
(By the way, ladies, we love your description of you two smart and lovely ladies describing your fabulous Blogathon: 
“We’re girls gone Wilder!”)

Meet our protagonist, C.R. MacNamara, as played by James Cagney:
“On Sunday, August 1st, 1961, the eyes of America were on the nation’s capital, where Roger Maris was hitting home runs 44 and 45 against the Senators. On that same day, without any warning, the East German Communists sealed the border between East and West Berlin.  I only mention this to show the kind of people we’re dealing with: real shifty!”
"A gift from my employees on the tenth
anniversary of the Berlin Airlift."
Writer/Director/Producer Billy Wilder has long been among my favorite filmmakers because he’s equally deft with both comedies (Ball of Fire; The Apartment; The Fortune Cookie; and drama (Double Indemnity; Stalag 17;Ace in the Hole), and he’s always gleefully unapologetic about ruffling feathers— even if they’re audiences!  I especially got a kick out of the film’s sprinkling of its playful references to our star James Cagney, even including co-star Red Buttons doing a swell imitation of the man himself.

In Cameron Crowe’s book Conversations with Wilder (Alfred A. Knopf),
it’s been said that Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L Diamond claimed that One, Two, Three wasn't so much funny as it was fast: “We did just did it, nine pages at a time, and he never fumbled.”  Apparently another Cagney bio claims that wasn't completely true, but I say the nit-pickers need to lighten up!  Our family fell in love with One, Two, Three and its hilarious pace breakneck pace!

The rollicking cast includes:
  • James Cagney; Oscar-winner for Yankee Doodle Dandy, as well as great performances in White Heat; *Love Me or Leave Me*
  • Howard St. John, who you may also remember from Mister 880, and his memorable dramatic turn as Captain Turley in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.
  • Pamela Tiffin (Harper; The Pleasure Seekers)
  • Horst Buchholz (The Magnificent Seven; Nine Hours to Rama)
  • Arlene Francis, actress and TV personality (The Thrill of it All)
  • Lilo Pulver (A Time to Love and a Time to Die; a Global Affair)

C.R. MacNamara was tasked with getting  "German business-
men to have Coke with their knockwurst"
One, Two, Three takes place in Berlin, in what was then present-day 1951.  That’s where C.R. MacNamara (Cagney), nicknamed “Mac,” is Coca-Cola’s head of bottling in Germany.  Mac’s hopes and dreams of getting back in the good graces of his boss Mr. Hazeltine (St. John) is on the line.  You see, Mac has still been smarting over the unfortunate Benny Goodman incident, in which a sandstorm cancelled Goodman’s concert, resulting in irate music-lovers burning down the American Embassy, leaving poor frustrated Mac in the doghouse! But it's redemption time for Mac as he open negotiations to bring Coca-Cola behind the Iron Curtain.  But Hazeltine informs Mac he's wasting his time -- Coke has no interest in giving the Reds the Pause That Refreshes (This was actually the case -- however, Pepsi had no such qualms, which is how they became the cola of choice - the ONLY choice -- in Russia).  Instead, Mr. Hazeltine is sending his teenage daughter, Scarlett Hazeltine (Tiffin) to hop a plane to Germany in hopes busting-up Scarlett’s newest teenage sweetie, thus throwing the family’s vacation plans going hither and tither!  But that’s only the beginning of this daffy farce.

Meet Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela Tiffin), hot-blooded teenage world-traveler.  If Scarlett was up for an award, she’d be a shoo-in for “Girl Most Likely to Give Mac’s Family High Blood Pressure!”
Almost as soon as she arrives, it turns out she's been seeing the sights after the MacNamaras hit the hay, bribing the family chauffeur to sneak over to the Russian sector! Worse yet, she's married a scruffy-headed Party-member named Otto Ludwig Piffl (Buchholz)! Who needs Tiffany's for an engagement ring, when you can have rings "forged from the steel of a brave cannon that fought at Stalingrad"?  Phyllis MacNamara (Arlene Francis), hearing from Mac about Scarlett’s new Communist husband, says “She married a Communist?  This is gonna be the biggest thing to hit Atlanta since General Sherman threw that little barbecue!”

Poor Otto, he doesn't know that all his troubles are behind him.
No worries, Mac has a plan.  Our naïve Otto is so busy thinking of love and rhetoric that he doesn't realize he's being framed!  Mac plants a balloon on the tailpipe of Piffl's motorbike, reading "Russki Go Home", and gives him a wedding present -- a cuckoo clock with a little Uncle Sam that plays "Yankee Doodle" -- wrapped in the Wall Street Journal, yet!  As Otto makes his way across the Brandenburg Gate, the East German guards stop him for the balloon, the Yankee Doodle time bomb goes off, and Otto is arrested and placed in "Enhanced Interrogation" for being a spy!

Waterboarding, eat your heart out!
Mac thinks all's well with the world...until it turns out that Otto and Scarlett have had time to consummate their wedded bliss -- she's "Schwanger", as they say in German.  So now Mac has to make his way into the Eastern sector, liberate Piffl, and turn him into a good little Capitalist, all before the Hazeltines arrive on the Yankee (you should pardon the expression) Clipper in under 24 hours!  Easy, right?  As Mac puts it, "I wish I was in Hell with my back broken!"

True, some of the more topical gags may seem dated today, but with Wilder and his co-writer I.A. L. Diamond (based on a play by Ferenc Molnar) , the smart snappy cast, and the breakneck pace, there wasn't a single scene that didn't leave me laughing out loud!   Can this howling hilarious satire save the day and the Free World?  Would Billy Wilder  let you down?  Watch and laugh!

“How would you like a little fruit for desert?”
(Cagney kids his Public Enemy grapefruit gag while arguing with Buchholz and Pamela Tiffin. 
Vinnie returns the empties as he has his say:

As The Wife mentions, the topical jokes in this film may require some explanation, but much like the jokes in any Warner Brothers cartoon, once they're explained, a whole new level of irreverence stands revealed.  The obvious physical gags like the Russian trade ministers all resembling various Russian leaders (including Leon Askin, best known to TV mavens as General Burkhalter from Hogan's Heroes) are easy to spot -- the minister taking his shoe off and banging it against the table to the rousing music and dancing of Lilo Pulver might miss a few heads as it sails over.
Otto: We will take over West Berlin. We will take over Western Europe.
We will bury you!

C.R. MacNamara: Do me a favor. Bury us, but don't marry us.

Topical jokes like this are missed by modern audiences, but cut deep at the issues of the day.
  The ministers' joke about "sending Cuba rockets" would come true the next year, as the center of the Cuban Missle Crisis.  And in what might be the most obscure in joke of them all, when Cagney tells Otto he must give the couple a wedding present, Scarlett claims that Otto's friends did not give them any gifts but instead sent the money to unemployed cotton pickers of Mississippi. Cagney was accused of being a communist sympathizer for sending money to striking cotton workers in the 1930's.

The climax of the film, as Mac and his cohorts must pull a Piffl pecuniary Pygmalion, is a masterpiece of comedic timing.  The chiming of the Uncle Sam clock gets imperceptibly faster each time it goes off, subtly underlining the increasingly frenetic pace as merchants and tradesmen teem through the Coca-Cola offices to add some white and blue to the little Red.  As legend has it, Cagney was having trouble with the machine-gun monologues as he rattles off orders to his underlings, so much so that he began to suspect he was, perhaps, not quite over the hill, but able to see the precipice without binoculars.  He walked to a corner of the soundstage, gave himself a quiet pep-talk, came back and nailed the speech in one more take.  The stress of the film caught up with him - this was his last film before his return in Ragtime.

Hard to believe Lilo Pulver was usually cast as a tomboy, ain't it?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Arabesque: Burnoose Notice

This post has been revised and republished as part of the Snoopathon: A Blogathon of Spies, hosted by Fritzi Kramer!  The Blogathon will run from June 1st through June 3rd, 2014. (Quick, what’s the password?)

The ever-versatile choreographer-turned-director Stanley Donen began his entertainment career with tuneful, urbane, inventive musicals including hits like On the Town (1949); Singin’ in the Rain (1952); Seven Brides for Seven Brothers  (1954); Funny Face (1957).  Like 1963’s comedy-thriller Charade (Fun Fact: that’s the year I was born!), Arabesque is another fabulous Universal romantic thriller in the grand stylish comedy-thriller tradition, including some of the same personnel!

After Stanley Donen’s Hitchcockian romantic comedy-thriller Charade (1963) became a smash hit, Donen had a decision to make:

  1. Should he play it safe and make another film just like Charade? Keep in mind that this was in the days before filmmakers sequel’ed hit films to death, often lazily giving them titles like, say,  Hit Movie Part 2. 
  2.  Should Our Man Stan go boldly go where he hadn’t gone before in his film career?

Well, Donen finally opted for a little of both with Arabesque (1966), and why not?  Don’t we all deserve more of the finer things in life, including entertaining suspense movies?  But I digress!  Arabesque has just about everything a moviegoer could want in a fun escapist comedy-thriller: spine-tingling suspense; international intrigue; sexy romance between Oscar-winning movie stars, albeit not both for Arabesque; you see, star Gregory Peck won his Best Actor Oscar for To Kill A Mockingbird, (1962), while Sophia Loren won her Best Actress Oscar for the searing Italian drama Two Women (1960).
Loren and Peck make a wonderful match with their delightful onscreen chemistry, accompanied by the great Henry Mancini (Charade; Hatari; Breakfast at Tiffany’s;Two for the Road).

I love screenwriter Peter Stone (Charade; Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe and collaborators, including Peter Stone) smart and snappy dialogue brimming with memorable lines; eye-catching English locations; jazzy Henry Mancini music infused with such exotic Middle Eastern touches as zithers and mandolas; inventive visuals with a pop art vibe; and the beguiling Sophia Loren in glam shoes, courtesy of foot-fetishist sugar daddy Alan Badel (The Day of the Jackal), and Christian Dior clothes! What’s not to love?

The eyes have it, and Prof. Ragheed's gonna get it!
 If Charade was Alfred Hitchcock Lite, then Arabesque is Hitchcock Lite after taking a few classes in James Bond 101, including an opening title sequence by Maurice Binder, who also did the honors for Charade and most of the James Bond movies. Gregory Peck plays David Pollack, a hieroglyphics expert Yank professor at Oxford who finds himself embroiled in Middle Eastern intrigue while decoding the cipher (which also happens to be the title of the Gordon Cotler novel which inspired the film, adapted by Julian Mitchell, Stanley Price and Pierre Marton. More about Marton in a moment) which serves as Arabesque’s MacGuffin.

 Our hero finds himself up against four Arabs who want to know what’s on the hieroglyphic-like cipher:

  • Prime Minister Jena (pronounced “Yay-na” and played by Carl Duering of A Clockwork Orange), who’s in England on a hush-hush mission; 
  • Nejim Beshraavi (Badel), the suave-bordering-on-unctuous shipping magnate whose ships may be laid up for good if Jena signs a treaty promising to use English and American tankers; 
  • Yussef Kasim (Kieron Moore of Crack in the World fame, among others), whose penchant for then-hip lingo a la Edd “Kookie” Byrnes on 77 Sunset Strip belies his ruthlessness; and...
  • In any language, nobody can resist Yasmin!
  • Beshraavi’s beautiful, unpredictable lover Yasmin Azir, played by the dazzling, hazel-eyed Loren. She’s sharp, witty, and alluring as all get out in her fabulous Dior wardrobe, including a beaded golden burnoose, plus Sophia rides horses convincingly! 

John Merivale of The List of Adrian Messenger fame is memorable as Sloane, Beshraavi’s put-upon henchman, who gets a memorably tense opening scene in a doctor’s office, and is treated as a combination lackey and punching bag for the rest of the film. I almost—only almost—felt sorry for the guy. Anyway, some of David’s new associates have no qualms about stooping to murder, and soon the chase is on, with suspenseful scenes at the Hyde Park Zoo and Ascot. Our man David is subjected to truth serum and knockouts, and I’m not just talking about Loren: “Every time I listen to you, someone either hits me over the head or tries to vaccinate me.” Poor David doesn’t know where to turn, especially since he can never be sure whether or not he can trust the mercurial Yasmin.

Kieron Moore attempts to kill Peck and Loren with a construction site.

Kieron Moore reads the Arabesque script:
"I talk like Kookie 
and get knocked off how?!"
The usual ever-so-slightly wooden note in Gregory Peck’s delivery is oddly effective as he tries to loosen up and deliver witticisms in the breezy style of Cary Grant, Donen’s business partner and original choice to play David Pollack. Word has it that Grant and Loren had a steamy real-life romance while filming Houseboat, and things got complicated on account of Loren still being married to producer Carlo Ponti. In any case, it helps that those witticisms were written by none other than Charade alumnus Peter Stone under the nom de plume “Pierre Marton,” and Stanley Price as well as Julian Mitchell. Peck may not be Mr. Glib, but he’s so inherently likable (he won his Oscar for playing Atticus Finch, after all! (Ask my husband Vinnie to do his Gregory-Peck-Impersonating-Cary-Grant impersonation sometime; it’s delightful!).

If the shoe fits, Beshraavi will have Yasmin wear it!
 Peck seems so delighted to get an opportunity to deliver bon mots after all his serious roles that he’s downright endearing, like a child trying out new words for the first time.  Besides, the bewitching Loren can make any guy look suave and sexy!  Co-star Alan Badel (The Day of the Jackal) looks like a swarthy, polished version of Peter Sellers wearing cool shades; he virtually steals his scenes as the suave-bordering-on-unctuous villain with a foot fetish. Shoe lovers will swoon over the scene with Badel outfitting Loren with a roomful of fancy footwear and a comically/suggestively long shoehorn. Speaking of things of beauty, Director of Photography  Christopher Challis (The Red Shoes; Sink the Bismarck) is utterly dazzling and inventive; no wonder he won  a BAFTA award (the British equivalent of the Oscars), and Christian Dior got a BAFTA nomination for Loren’s elegant costumes!

Giddy-up, giddy-up, let's go! Let's vanquish a foe!
The only thing that disappoints me about Arabesque is that director/producer Donen didn’t seem to like this sparkling, twist-filled adventure as much as our family and so many other movie lovers do. Specifically, he felt the script needed work. In Stephen M. Silverman’s book about Donen’s films, Dancing on the Ceiling, Donen is quoted as saying about Arabesque, “We have to make it so interesting visually that no one will think about it.” Boy, did they ever! In an article about Arabesque on the TCM Web site, Stone had said that Donen “shot it better than he ever shot any picture. Everything was shot as though it were a reflection in a Rolls-Royce headlamp.” I don’t think Donen gave himself or the movie enough credit, though. If you ask me, Arabesque is a perfect example of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best-known quotes: “Some films are slices of life; mine are slices of cake.” Now that Arabesque is finally available on DVD (my own copy is part of Universal’s Gregory Peck Film Collection, a seven-disc DVD set that Vin bought me for Christmas 2011), I wish someone would get Donen and Loren together to do the kind of entertaining, informative commentary Donen did with the late Stone for Criterion’s special-edition Charade DVD, while they’re both still alive and well enough to swap stories, or perhaps even put out a whole new deluxe edition of the film!
Our heroes saddle up for action! Nice horsies!
At Ascot, that's the ticket - to frame our man David Pollock for murder!

Reflections in two sexy spies! (Great F/X work!)
Odd, I don’t usually get hieroglyphics in my fortune cookies!
Double-cross Beshraavi, and you’re in for a date with the falcon—
and we don’t mean George Sanders!
Now that's what I call breakfast in bed!

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956): Que Sera Scare-a!

This blog post is hosted by the Fabulous Films of the 1950s Blogathon, hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association (CMBA), running from May 22 through May 26, 2014.  We hope you’ll enjoy this blast from the past!

Today’s parents are often accused  of “Helicopter Parenting,” but after the harrowing adventure the McKenna Family endures in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, who can blame them for being a heck of a lot clingier than usual?

As TCM’s Brian Cady notes, the original 1934 smash hit got Hitchcock started on a nearly unbroken string of wildly popular suspense thrillers that made him “The Master of Suspense.”

Hitchcock's films were well known for their cymbalism...
But Hitchcock had never been the type to rest on his laurels.  Sure, the original Man Who Knew Too Much (let’s just call it “Man,” we’re all pals here!) was already a classic, but Hitchcock felt his original masterpiece would be even better with Paramount’s glorious VistaVision and the other new technologies available at the time, making the 1956 version even better.